A man like Jack

Published October 1, 2011

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world. — from a letter to Canadians from Jack Layton, Leader of the Official Opposition, two days before he died, at the age of 61, on August 22.

I envy Jack Layton.

Not his premature death, certainly, but the way he lived his life, and the way he left it. With a passion, true to his ideals and values.

A proud Canadian, he believed in the right of all Canadians to love their lives and their country. He was focused and committed to a vision of social democracy and he lived it out. He didn’t so much defeat his political and ideological opponents as gather them into the fray. There’s enough work to go around, seemed to be his motto, so let’s get busy.

Jack Layton personified the concept of inclusivity. And the grace that he exhibited at the time of his death left me, who has never voted NDP, wondering why I hadn’t. Here was a true leader who was in a position to do so much more. He left us inspired.

When I was a 20-something reporter working in a newsroom full of crusty old men (in their 30s and 40s) I used to hear the guys guffawing about the NDP around election time: “Hey, Jenkins,” the news editor called out to me one afternoon after I made the mistake of answering his question about my political leanings. “Vote for the NDP and they’ll take everything you ever earned and give it to everybody else.” This pronouncement was greeted with raucous laughter from The Boys. One of them pointed at me, drawing more gales of laughter at the look on my face. The news editor, it seemed, has just scored another zinger at my expense.

The Boys had another political insight they were fond of sharing: “Vote for the Conservatives and they’ll take everything you ever made and make the rich folks even richer.” Maybe that’s why I’ve always voted Liberal, not that I’m feeling particularly inspired these days.

A skeptic would say Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to give his political rival a state funeral was a shrewd manoeuvre. After all, he didn’t have to. I prefer to believe Harper recognized that Jack Layton was a true statesman, an intelligent and capable leader who deserved nothing less.

Layton admitted he wasn’t much of a churchgoer, even though he was raised in the United Church. But that didn’t appear to keep Layton from living the kind of life to which any of us would aspire. Even in his dying days he was focused on service, reaching out to Canadians with a positive message. Don’t be discouraged because things have not gone for me as I had hoped, he told those fighting cancer. The battle is more often won than lost these days, he insisted. Layton encouraged young Canadians to take on the job of forging a just society, acknowledging that they are our hope for the future,

Love, hope and optimism versus anger, fear and despair. If we have a choice, as Layton implied, why do we hesitate to feel joy?

This office has afforded me a unique view of Christian culture and, folks, I have to tell you, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been lifted up by the delight and encouragement of readers who had come to expect very little from the Journal. But I have also been privy to attitudes and behaviours that sometimes leave me tossing and turning at night. I have witnessed those who use the Bible like a blunt instrument to bludgeon their opponents into silence. I have seen scripture wielded like a sword, plunged again and again into another’s viewpoint. I have been blasted with the hot air of inflated ego and felt my blood run cold at the false piety of those who would make others feel deeply ashamed.

Is it possible that a man like Jack, who had two feet firmly planted in the secular world, followed a more divine path than some who claim to follow Christ? Many of us, it seems, have a long way to go to catch up with Jack Layton.

May he rest in peace.

Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal. email: [email protected]


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